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Native Son

Charlotte celebrates Romare Bearden

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Vibrant color, jazzy compositions, personal narrative and rich texture characterize the work of Romare Bearden, Charlotte's native son who went on to become one of the most celebrated artists of the 20th century. There's hardly a major art museum in the nation that doesn't have at least one example of Bearden's work. The Mint Museum owns work by Bearden, and, judging from the current exhibit at the Mint, so do a number of people in our community.And this is just the tip of the iceberg, according to Charles Mo, Vice President of Collections and Exhibitions as well as Curator of the exhibit Charlotte's Own: Romare Bearden, currently at the Mint Museum of Art on Randolph Road through October 27.

Charlotte's Own features over 70 Beardens from both area private and corporate collections. In addition, there's a special presentation following the exhibit that showcases the nine Beardens from the Mint's collection. Charlotte's Own also serves as a companion to the exhibit, Narratives of African American Art and Identity: The David Driscoll Collection (also at the Mint through October 27).

Romare Bearden was born on Graham Street in Charlotte's Third Ward in 1912. His family moved to Harlem when he was about 3 years old. Though he grew up primarily in Pittsburgh and Harlem, his ties to Charlotte were maintained through summer visits with grandparents and other family members in the area. Growing up in the midst of the Harlem Renaissance and its circle of intellectuals, artists and musicians was a large influence on Bearden's work. Yet his childhood memories of the segregated South, along with those of family rituals, the influence of gospel spirituals and the blues, were strong enough to inspire themes that he explored in two collage series, Mecklenburg County and Of the Blues.

When asked what prompted him to put together this exhibit, Charles Mo replied, "There are a number of reasons. The show started out as a local complement not only to the Driskell exhibit but also to the large retrospective of Bearden's work at the National Gallery in Washington, DC. Though that show has now been postponed to 2003, we went ahead with the exhibit because it's important for the Mint to acknowledge that Bearden, born in Charlotte, went on to become one of the great artists of the 20th century, particularly within the medium of collage. My intention was not to create an encyclopedic exhibit of Bearden's work but rather to celebrate the artist and his art as well as the collectors in our community.

"The show has been a joy to put together on so many levels," he continued. "First, it has been exciting to visit collectors in the area and to see the amazing variety of Bearden's work that's here in our community -- collage, prints, watercolors -- and I know I did not see everything! It was also very rewarding to be able to immerse myself in looking at and considering Bearden's work. I have always had an appreciation for his work, its depth, its insight, its history. But having spent a great deal of time with the work, I now find it even more compelling and rich with complexity."

The show, organized in a loose chronological fashion, has many outstanding examples of Bearden's work. The show features two of his most significant collages, "Farewell Eugene" (1978) and "Carolina Shout" (1974), both of which will also be in the retrospective at the National Gallery in 2003. "Farewell Eugene" (one of my favorites), from the series called Pittsburgh Memories, is Bearden's homage to the short life of his crippled childhood friend Eugene, who inspired Bearden to learn how to draw. "Carolina Shout," from the Of the Blues series, is owned by the Mint Museum and depicts a Southern baptism by the river with joyous gestures and jazzy juke joint rhythms of line, color and texture.

Herb Jackson and Laura Grosch (both well-known artists) have two collages by Bearden in the exhibit: the aforementioned "Farewell Eugene" and "At Mabel's Place" (1985). In addition to owning works by Bearden, they also had the opportunity to get to know both him and his wife. In fact, it was Jackson who organized the first show of Bearden's work in the Charlotte area. The show opened at Davidson College (where Jackson is the Williamson Professor of Art) in 1978.

"In 1971, on our way back home from Italy, Laura and I saw Bearden's work at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York," explained Jackson. "It was an historic and politically significant event because it was the first time that MOMA had given significant space and attention to an African-American artist. We loved the work. I was especially fascinated by its vitality and the way that he played with scale in the collages. I came home thinking that I need to know more about this person. Once I discovered the regional connection, I decided to propose to Davidson that we award Bearden an honorary degree and host a show at the College. It was approved, and in the spring of 1978, Bearden came to Davidson to receive the degree and take part in the exhibit.

"Laura and I had Bearden to dinner when he arrived for the honorary degree," continued Jackson. "That evening, he spoke eloquently about the composition and the story of the collage "Farewell Eugene.' Laura and I own it because we got lucky. We couldn't afford to buy it the first time it was available. We later saw it at the Mint exhibit in 1980, and then years later, we were very fortunate to purchase it through Sotheby's at auction. It hangs not far from where he sat that evening in 1978. It's a piece that we lend frequently, and we always miss it."

Jackson's relationship with Bearden was more than merely professional, however. "Over the years I got to know Bearden," he revealed. "I would see him when I went to New York. He would visit me when he came to Charlotte. I loved the man very much. He was warm, generous and embracing. He was also verbally eloquent, quite the poet. It was easy to be mesmerized by his voice, his stories."

Bearden was a talented artist, but he was also an educator, an author, a theorist and a generous benefactor who helped encourage young African-American artists as they established their own careers. And his influence continues to hold sway with many artists, not merely visual artists. August Wilson, an African-American playwright and activist who received Pulitzer Prize recognition for the plays Fences and The Piano Lesson, is an admirer of Bearden and has acknowledged the effect that the artist's work has had on him. "What I saw was Black life for the first time presented on its own terms, on a grand and epic scale, with all its richness and fullness," Wilson stated in a past interview. "It was the art of a large and generous spirit that defined not only the character of Black American life, but also its conscience."

The exhibit Charlotte's Own: Romare Bearden will continue through October 27 at the Mint Museum of Art. Call 337-2000 for more info on the exhibit as well as the Mint's other Bearden-related activities. Also, Jerald Melberg Gallery will feature various Bearden works September 7 through November 2. For details, call 365-3000.

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